Resting the Spirit

September 23, 2018
Reverend Sarah Brouwer

The text for today comes from the book of Numbers- and deserves some context. Numbers has a different name in Hebrew- it’s called B’mid-bar. It means “in a desert.” It recounts the forty years the people of Israel spent in the desert after their exodus from slavery. You all probably have at least a bare minimum knowledge of the story; Moses is called on by God through a burning bush, and while he isn’t quite sure he is cut out for leadership, he leads the Israelites out of Egypt. The first ten chapters of Numbers are essentially a bunch of censuses taken of all 600,000 plus people. Incidentally they aren’t too pleased when they learn the promised land will also include strong people of non-Jewish descent. Their disappointment in this revelation and, I’m guessing, the hardship of traveling such a long distance with confusion and lack of food, caused them to become ungrateful and, at times, disobedient to both Moses and God. It’s what caused them to end up in the wilderness for 40 years. And that’s where we find ourselves today- the beginning of a rather lengthy discourse between Moses, God, and the people of Israel.

Given that, listen to this:

Numbers 11 selected verses:

The riffraff among them had a strong craving. Even the Israelites cried again and said, “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our lives are wasting away. There is nothing but bread in front of us.”

Moses heard the people crying… The Lord was outraged, and Moses was upset. Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? And why haven’t I found favor in your eyes, for you have placed the burden of all these people on me? Where am I to get meat for all these people? I can’t bear this people on my own. They’re too heavy for me. If you’re going to treat me like this, please kill me. If I’ve found favor in your eyes, then don’t let me endure this wretched situation.”

The Lord said to Moses, “Gather before me seventy men from Israel’s elders. Take them to the meeting tent and let them stand there with you. Then I’ll descend and speak with you there. I’ll take some of the spirit that is on you and place it on them. Then they will carry the burden of the people with you so that you won’t bear it alone. To the people you will say, ‘Make yourselves holy for tomorrow; then you will eat meat, for you’ve cried in the Lord’s hearing, “Who will give us meat to eat? It was better for us in Egypt.” The Lord will give you meat, and you will eat. You won’t eat for just one day… but for a whole month until it comes out of your nostrils and nauseates you. You’ve rejected the Lord who’s been with you and you have cried before him, saying, “Why did we leave Egypt?’”

Moses said, “The people I’m with are six hundred thousand on foot and you’re saying, ‘I will give them meat, and they will eat for a month.’ Can flocks and herds be found and slaughtered for them? Or can all the fish in the sea be found and caught for them?”

The Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s power too weak? Now you will see whether my word will come true for you or not.”

So Moses went out and told the people the Lord’s words. He assembled seventy men from the people’s elders and placed them around the tent. The Lord descended in a cloud, spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and placed it on the seventy elders.

A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” Joshua, Nun’s son and Moses’ assistant since his youth, responded, “My master Moses, stop them!” Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets with the Lord placing his spirit on them!”

This is God’s wisdom for us, God’s people. And for it we are thankful.

In its entirety the book of Numbers is about a journey. A journey through the Sinai desert wilderness that took several generations to complete.

Whatever we lack in complete historical knowledge of the wilderness years doesn’t really matter. What is true about the wilderness is that it was hard, for the people of Israel and Moses and, frankly, for God. The stakes were high, and complex. The Israelites weren’t home. They weren’t safe. And they weren’t completely alone- there were others around them who didn’t believe the same things or have the same standards they did.

The story starts out by mentioning the riffraff- these weren’t Israelites, but people who had, apparently, been influencing them. The people of Israel probably were sick of eating bread all the time, but these other folks kept reminding them of what they were missing. The picture often painted of this scene is a bunch of whiney Israelites, but the Old Testament is always more nuanced then that. They were in a hard, decades-long situation, and much like refugees in a camp far from home, the Israelites were rather stuck. At least they had gotten out of slavery, and Moses risked a lot to make that happen. But in the wilderness they had no agency. They couldn’t just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They were expected to be grateful and obedient to God without the ability to make things better for themselves.

And poor Moses. He’s in the middle of this triangulation. Chosen by God to lead these people, he was unsure from the beginning… but then things got dire. The Israelites were making him look bad to his boss for being so ungrateful and disobedient. Moses is at the end of his rope, and to be honest, I think he expected more from God. So, he finally let’s God have it. The question is, was God being negligent to the people? It’s complicated. God’s upset and realizing that it’s going to take much longer for them to mature than originally planned. God is frustrated by their lack of gratitude, trust, and stick-to-it-iveness. The thing is, I don’t think God wants people to wander, to lack assurance, or be away from safety and familiarity. But, God does hold people accountable.

The whole thing seems a little messy. It seems like God and Moses should have it together more than they do. Wasn’t there a plan? Some policy in place to make sure this would all go smoothly?

There are so many lessons you could choose here it hardly seems fair to pick just one. We still have people today who suffer the kind of generational trauma and lack of agency the Israelites faced. We find our nation in what I would describe as a wilderness period of its own, and we go through wilderness periods in our individual lives, when we are far away from home or life feels very uncertain. And, we too have complicated relationships that lack total trust, not only with those closest to us, but with God, too.

What is most striking to me in this story is how God handles things. It’s like God is speaking to Moses through clenched teeth, telling him to go gather the elders. The good news is that everything does not need to be 100% okay physically, relationally, spiritually or emotionally for God to do something about it. God is faithful and responds when called upon. The elders gather and God, as the text says, God places the spirit on them. In another translation it says that God, “rests the spirit” on each of them, which I love. It inspires them to share the leadership burden, and gives them authority to do something about their situation. It’s a rare moment of wonder and agreement. God tells Moses, go and do this, so you will not bear it alone.

I love this idea of God resting the spirit on us. It’s not only empowering, but a brief affirmation of God’s love and assurance that we’re in this together. I imagine it helping us to see things differently, even for a moment. God’s Spirit rests on us and we get a fresh perspective. We are given the benefit of the doubt by God, and it’s a reminder that we can give that to others. It’s like a glimmer of hope in the middle of a tense situation. We are provided a boost, to see us through the long haul of trying times. There will be suffering, yes, stress and anxiety, yes, but there will also be growth and maturity and wisdom gained. We will pick up the pieces of a broken life situation, or a damaged relationship, and try again, renewed by God’s commitment to be with us.

I actually find great comfort in a text like this. The complexity of it. The lack of resolution. It’s so much like our lives, and our shared life. God does not provide easy fixes by flicking a wrist and making it all better. I worry so often that the more evangelical churches around us encourage just this way of belief, luring people down a poor theological path- one that leads to disappoint and confusion when things do not turn out as expected. I also worry that the image of this wrist-flicking God is a cover up used by people in power to obscure reality. It’s actually the exact opposite image of God that is found in this text. God doesn’t hoard power, God shares it. Resting the spirit on people without agency, calling upon them to rise up.

This story tells us exactly how God cares for us. Not in some saccharine sweet way that only serves the privileged who can already expect their wishes to come true if they just pray hard enough. It tells the tale of God being with those on the margins. Slaves! A people without choices! And they aren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But God’s unending patience and mercy is mixed with accountability and purpose for their lives. God wants things to be better for them.

These mostly unread chapters of the Bible are often thought of as poor sermon material, so most of us never hear them. But, they are important. They convey the roots of our faith, which were not born in ease, but in a dynamic of deep and profound lostness. This week, we were all witnesses to a stunning series of events in our nation’s capital. As a result, it feels like we too are lost in a world where those without authority cry out in an echo chamber of abuse and power. And it can feel hopeless.

At the end of the story, Joshua, Moses’ intern, runs up to him, like he’s out of breath and says, ‘hey, those guys, Eldad and Medad, didn’t come to the tent meeting with you and they are back at the camp prophesying.’ Joshua is worried about order, and doing things right, which is only natural at his age and with his level of experience. Moses is a little bit short with him, but in a rather sarcastic tone he basically tells Joshua, ‘it’s about time they spoke up!’ Moses says, “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets with the Lord placing the spirit on them!”

Moses was right. If only. Part of sharing the burden is speaking up and telling the truth. If only we all did this; if only we took a portion away from those who hurt, it would be like we were also chipping away at the pain, in order to seek truth and justice. When we don’t, we sink further into the depths of the wilderness. Further away from what God wants from us, and for all people.

There’s a portion of the story that we didn’t read today. God does bring food to the people- three feet of dead quail get blown in by the wind- but it’s so much they can’t possibly eat it all and they end of getting sick from stuffing themselves. It’s such a weird ending. But, what I take away from it is this: sharing the burden will mean blessing and hardship, all at once, and it’s almost too much to take in. This week was a blessing and hardship. There were moments of sheer beauty, of pain laid bare and an overwhelming number of people coming together in support of a courageous survivor. And there were moments when the pain was not born by all. It all goes together. The pain and suffering

When the Spirit rests on us to share in the burden of trying to make things better, it won’t be easy. The Spirit is like that. Just because it rests on us doesn’t mean it’s restful. The Spirit agitates us into action. It comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, stirring us from complacency and helping us to recognize that we too must take the long view- generation by generation, speaking up, on behalf of those who have born far too much.

This story, and our story, it is complex. Beware of Christians who try and make it simpler, because it’s not. But, God is there through it all. In our morning worship, when we baptize babies, we make promises to them, along with their parents, to raise them in the faith. At the core of these promises we say that they are never alone. Never alone from God and never alone from the community that has claimed them. In a sense, baptism is, for a brief moment, God’s spirit resting on them. A glimpse of hope, a reminder of promise, an encounter of certainty that gets us through a life of uncertainty. As a pastor it’s my greatest hope that church can be the embrace of community for wilderness times.

As we go out into the complexity of this week, into the wonder and pain of it all, we should remember the God of this story, the God of promise, who rests the Spirit onto us, stirs us, empowers us, calls on us to share in the burden, and more than anything else reminds us we are never, ever alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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